By Ted Wachtel
The Green Bay Packers football team is the only major sports franchise in North America whose fans own the team.
On August 18,1923, the Hungry Five—so named because they were always begging for money to keep the Packers alive—persuaded the National Football League to make an exception to the rule that a team must be owned by an individual or a small group of owners.
Consequently, over 360,000 shareholders today own more than 5 million shares of non-profit corporate stock. Despite the fact that a share costs $250, “pays no dividends, benefits from no earnings, isn’t tradable and has no securities-law protection…buyers can’t get enough.” A tax expert on Wall Street remarked, “I’ve never seen a stock offering where people pay so much and get so little.”
But that’s how non-profit corporations can accomplish things that people want done, but which profit-making corporations would not likely undertake nor sustain.
Non-profits are not a replacement for profit-making corporations, but they provide a good way to run a business that is accountable to the local community. While non-profit corporations must be just as businesslike as their counterparts, they have different motives and behaviors than for-profit corporations.
The Packers are the only American major-league sports franchise to release its financial balance sheet every year. The board of directors, except for the elected CEO, all serve without pay. If the team dissolves, all profits and assets go to community programs and charities.
By engaging with its fans, the Green Bay Packers football team has an unshakable base of support that securely anchors the team to Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s a city of only a hundred thousand people, while much bigger cities see their sports teams move away, much to the consternation of local fans.
In Europe, a growing number of teams have become fan-owned football teams, particularly in the U.K., where there are a number of “protest” or “phoenix” teams that have been formed in response to dissatisfaction with private owners, or when teams have shut down.
Whether fans owning teams is a trend that will spread to other locales, including the U.S., is an open question. But the spirit associated with the Green Bay Packers, as well as FC Barcelona and Real Madrid—two of Europe’s most successful football (soccer) teams—demonstrates how sports teams can thrive when their fans own them.
Doing with, rather than to or for, may be the next development for sports teams in a new reality.